The Jerusalem House That Waited for Its Arab Neighbors to Return

Rubin Mass saved books from being burned by the Nazis in 1933 and 15 years later safeguarded the property of his Arab neighbors. A new exhibition recounts the tumultuous history of his house in the Talbieh neighborhood

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The Talbieh neighborhood of Jerusalem in the 1920s. It has expanded somewhat over the past century.
The Talbieh neighborhood of Jerusalem in the 1920s. It has expanded somewhat over the past century.Credit: Scanned and Processed by JJT Inc

Like many places in Israel, the upscale Talbieh neighborhood in Jerusalem emptied out of Arab residents in 1948. Unlike other places, though, there was someone here who went to the trouble of putting objects in storage and making sure they were well-preserved.

“With the good relations we had with the Arabs here, I insisted at the time on taking care of the Arabs’ property. In each apartment, we set aside a room where we put all the owner’s property, except for the tables and chairs and beds that we had to make available for the refugees to use. We sealed up the room with wax and the [Jewish] family that moved in had to sign something declaring that they wouldn’t touch that property.”

The above was written by Rubin Mass, the Jewish mukhtar (leader) of the Talbieh neighborhood, contained in a diary excerpt quoted in Menachem Klein’s (Hebrew-language) book “Keshurim.”

Mass threw himself into this project shortly after the death of his son, Dani Mass, commander of the “Convoy of 35” unit that was massacred on the way to Gush Etzion in January 1948. For three years, with Yekke thoroughness and care, he looked after and cataloged each item – from a lone kettle to an entire house – and collected rental fees (that were paid to the state). In his diary he said he was doing it while he waited for the Arab neighbors to return.

Mass’ own home, at 11 Marcus Street in Talbieh, and his life story are the inspiration for the work of two artists on display as part of the “Nekhasim” (“Properties”) exhibition at the Manofim art festival in Jerusalem.

Rubin Mass House today in the upscale Jerusalem neighborhood of Talbieh. The home's builders and owners were an Arab couple, Lulu Jamal and Yusuf Ghajar.Credit: Emil Salman

The work touches on the Nakba (when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1947-49 Israeli War of Independence), bereavement and the fate of various objects and buildings.

Mass’ house has undergone an evolution similar to that of many homes in the neighborhood – from an upscale two-story house of a Palestinian family to a six-story building owned by Jews from abroad that stands empty most of the year except for Sukkot and Passover.

It says “Rubin Mass” on the gate to the yard and on a sign the city put up on a wall many years later, and this is how the house is known in Jerusalem. The Mass family – Rubin, Chana, and their sons Dani and Yonatan – lived in the house for many years, from the time Chana and Rubin arrived from Germany in 1933, shortly after the huge book burning staged by Goebbels in Berlin’s Opera Square.

In Berlin, Mass had run a publishing house named after him (today it operates out of Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood). And 15 years before he worked to save his neighbors’ property, he personally saved as many books as he could from that fire in May 1933. At their home in Talbieh, his wife painted and he managed the affairs of the neighborhood – as the Jewish mukhtar, alongside his Arab counterpart – until, following the war, he was left as the only head of the neighborhood.

Still, the name “Rubin Mass House” can be misleading. Mass did not build the house; he was not the first to live in it; and for 15 years he lived there as a renter (indeed, the first Jewish tenant in the then-Arab neighborhood).

Interdisciplinary artists Nir Shauloff, left, and Adam Kaplan, have created something resembling a mini-museum with a guided tour, carefully selected displays and video installations.Credit: Emil Salman

The builders and owners were Lulu Jamal and Yusuf Ghajar, an affluent couple that moved into the house around the time Mass and his family came to the neighborhood. But like the objects that were once locked away in rooms throughout the neighborhood, hardly anything now remains of the house and neighborhood’s Palestinian past.

The house and its multilayered history were one of the main settings for the 10th Manofim festival. (Although the festival ended Saturday, the exhibition continues through November 23.) Interdisciplinary artists Adam Kaplan and Nir Shauloff, both native Jerusalemites, did in-depth research on the history of the house and its occupants, and have created something resembling a mini-museum with a guided tour, carefully selected displays and video installations.

The work is presented in a tiny residential unit in the yard of the historic house, with the approval of the current owners.

“For us, the story of the house is in many ways the story of Talbieh, or the story of Jerusalem, or of Israel as a whole,” said Shauloff. “A house that was built by Palestinians, rented to Jews in very capitalistic fashion, remained theirs after the war and eventually came to be owned by them, making them property owners and part of a local elite that profits from the house by selling it to the foreign elite.” Added Kaplan: “It’s an exit on top of an exit on top of an exit.”

Display strategies

For three years, Mass guarded the houses and property, and prohibited the new tenants – Jewish refugees from neighborhoods in the line of fire, or judges and university professors who received apartments from the state – to make use of the objects in the homes.

From the exhibition “Nekhasim” (“Properties”). Who did the table belong to, Rubin Mass or the previous Arab occupants of the house?Credit: Emil Salman

Among the documents located by the artists (with the assistance of researcher Lee Rothbart) were papers that Mass had his new neighbors sign. One read: “I hereby pledge to vacate the apartment when the legal owners demand that I do so, no later than one month after receiving notice from the owners.”

Three years after the war, people from the office of the Custodian of Absentee Property came to the neighborhood and unsealed the locked rooms, and the items that had been stored there started getting passed around. “Some were destroyed, some can now be found in the homes of Ashkenazi Jews, some ended up in the flea markets, and the furniture in the Mass house probably stayed with the property,” said Kaplan.

In the course of their research, Shauloff, Kaplan and Rothbart uncovered a number of items and reached certain insights that shaped the work. They found there is hardly any accessible material in Hebrew or Arabic about the Jamal-Ghajar family from the time they lived in the neighborhood. They also learned that Rubin Mass was not just a good neighbor and friend to his Arab acquaintances during the war, but also a meticulous bureaucrat dedicated to keeping things in perfect order. They also looked carefully at the way in which he came to own the house: “In 1973, they bought the house from the state,” noted Shauloff. “There is no evidence that they paid rent in the 20 years prior to that.”

The video works at the heart of the project are based, to a large extent, on another detail from the mythology of the house that they discovered in the course of the project.

From talking with Mass’ grandchildren, they learned that in 1975 the large house served as the set for the filming of a TV movie based on Lea Goldberg’s play “The Lady of the Castle.” In the movie, the house stands in for the European mansion where Lena – a Jewish girl who doesn’t know the war has ended – is hiding out. “They needed a big library and the house was just right,” said Kaplan. In the video work, excerpts from “The Lady of the Castle” are combined with narration by the Mass family, and interspersed with scenes of modern-day Talbieh and historical images of the neighborhood.

Dani Mass.Credit: Tamar Hayardeni

The “Nekhasim” exhibition is spread around a number of houses in Talbieh, which, for the sake of the exhibition, are being used as galleries and have been opened to the public. But visitors to the Rubin Mass house do not enter the building. They stand in front of it and take in its beauty, then small groups are led by a Palestinian guide, Tarek, to a small pavilion behind it.

Before the group enters, Tarek relates the house’s story in English. He speaks about Jamal and Mass; about the Absentees’ Property Law that transferred ownership of the buildings to the state; about Dani Mass’ heroic death and about the filming of the movie that afforded the only glimpse of the house’s ornate interior.

“It will be interesting for you to watch the film and try to tell what belongs to the house and what doesn’t,” said Tarek.

Inside the small pavilion, visitors find a reconstruction of a room in the house – with a painting by Chana Mass on the wall, a cup of tea on the table and books about the family history published by Mass press arranged in a row.

“One of the main images we started with was the notion of the locked room: The idea that there is a locked room with furniture, objects, memories and stories inside,” said Shauloff. “And then you open the door and what do you find there? This table. Whom does it belong to? Is it Rubin’s? Did Rubin get it from Ghajar?

“And as soon as we discovered that there was a movie with footage of this place that came from a later time, it also raised questions about what in all this is scenery, what is real, what is a representation,” added Ghajar. “Could Ghajar’s table really have ended up in Rubin’s possession and then found its way into the movie? We tried to address each one of these stages, but there was no documentation for some of them.”

The question of what is real and what isn’t, of what is important and what isn’t, is threaded throughout the artists’ work. The fictional story of Lena in “The Lady of the Castle” becomes a metaphor for Lulu, the first owner of the house who had to flee; Dani Mass’ original paintings are displayed alongside items of furniture that are not original; and Tarek, whose presence also serves as a reminder of the Palestinian aspect of the narrative, is tasked with recounting tales of Palmach heroism (referring to the elite strike force of the Haganah, the pre-state underground Jewish militia).

“We were intrigued, from the poetic or aesthetic angle, by the display strategies in small museums, such as the Lehi Museum in Florentin,” said Shauloff, referring to the Tel Aviv neighborhood. “Museums that were created ad hoc and rely on a tradition of recreating objects or rooms, and whose commitment is more to creating a certain atmosphere and less to the restoration of a specific object. You have this space with all sorts of objects in it – and they could be connected to Rubin or to Ghajar or to Karasick [the current owner]. They could be objects that we brought, and all of it is part of this situation of ‘the locked room.’”

At the end of the tour, the guide lets visitors wander around on their own for a few minutes and take pictures – a somewhat amusing situation considering the small space that is practically bursting at the seams from the number of people inside. Explained Kaplan: “Confusion regarding the museum is one element of the work: Confusion about the attempt to translate the history into objects or into a narrative that doesn’t quite represent what it is supposed to represent.”

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